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Can a drama get away with anything if it’s historical?


In the week in which The Sun newspaper suggested that the use of topless photographs in their papers was a thing of the past and then triumphantly backtracked, in what we can only assume was an unpleasant publicity stunt, I was quite startled by certain aspects of BBC2’s new drama, Wolf Hall, which I watched on iplayer last evening. The drama is based on the Booker Prize winning novels about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell by Hilary Mantel. The production values are quite remarkable and the acting superb. However, there was an element of the programme which made me feel uncomfortable.
I was a History Teacher for a long while and I’ve taught the Tudor period at A-level a good few times, so the details of Henry VIII’s attempts to gain an annulment of his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon are familiar to me, as I’m sure it is to many others too. It’s general knowledge. The difference in Mantel’s story is how she concentrates on the roles of Cromwell, Wolsey and More. We get to know about their families and the behind-the-scenes power struggles at court. But one should remember that this is still fiction. We do not know that these conversations actually took place, we should bear in mind that this dialogue is created by Mantel’s literary licence.
So, I was a little perturbed to hear Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey making jokes about Anne Boleyn being ‘flat-chested’ and indicating their surprise that the king had turned his attentions to her. Indeed, later in the episode, Thomas Cromwell makes a lewd reference to the same thing with Anne’s own sister, Mary, who laughs heartily at his witticism.
I’m sure that Mantel based this observation on evidence she found in contemporary letters and accounts, but is it strictly necessary or appropriate to make it part of the drama? I’ve taught the Tudors for many years without finding the need to mention that Anne Boleyn’s breasts were small. There are a number of reasons why I would not have done. Firstly, because it could never be proved to be correct. The rumour could easily have been spread by her enemies in an effort to degrade, belittle and demean her. To me, the poor woman had had her head chopped off on the orders of her husband, which must surely be demeaning enough. Secondly, I would never say something disparaging about the size of a woman’s breasts in front of a class of students because it would result in the girls feeling incredibly uncomfortable and self-conscious and the boys getting the wrong idea about how they should view women. It’s a teaching no-brainer.
So is it acceptable in a historical drama? I actually think it isn’t. When looking at events that happened as long ago as the 16th Century there is arguably no such thing as ‘historical fact’. As writers, we will always be placing our own interpretations on the piece and actually, we cannot forget the modern audience and how the work will impact upon them. I’m not a great believer in censorship but in making a judgement about what is in good or bad taste and how it will be received by a modern, literate, intelligent audience. All writers must consider this when they put pen to paper.
Later in the episode, there was a particularly nasty, violent assault on a young boy. Again, this is something that even the most hard-core of detective dramas would shy away from depicting on screen. So because it’s historical and dare I say it, ‘intellectual’, that means it’s alright?
I think that ultimately, it’s a question of judgement by the writers and the director as to what is appropriate. But I would suggest that even if your topic is embedded within the culture of the past, your audience are most definitely not, and you should approach delicate issues accordingly.

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